The Battle of Pleime
General Hieu did not wait until he became a tactical commander to start to make use of the Tandem Infantry Armor Formula. He did it when he was still the 2nd Corps Chief of Staff, under the command of Brigadier General Vinh Loc, when he played a major role in the design and execution of sending a Task Force relief column to rescue Special Forces camp Pleime in October 1965.
The Special Forces camp Pleime was an outpost located in a remote area about 20 miles east of the Cambodian border, 10 miles west of highway QL-14, and 10 miles south of Pleiku. This camp was garrisoned by a combined American-Vietnamese-Montagnard Special Forces contingency composed of the twelve-man Operations Detachment A-127, fourteen LLDB troops, and 415 Jarai, Rhade, and Bahnar tribal CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) soldiers.
Prior to October 1965, this outpost played an insignificant role and operated independently according to the model of Special Forces units. However, it suddenly gained a visible and important status when intelligence officers discovered the Dong Xuan (Winter-Spring) Campaign plan designed by NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap. The objective of this Dong Xuan Campaign was to cut South Vietnam into two pieces and had three phases: 1. conquer camp Pleime; 2. conquer Pleiku; 3. conquer Qui Nhon. General Vo Nguyen Giap intended to use 3 NVA divisions for that purpose. NVA General Chu Huy Man was entrusted the use of a divisional force composed of three Regiments, the 32nd, the 33rd and the 66th to achieve phase 1, conquer the Special Forces camp Pleime.
General Chu Huy Man's Tay Nguyen (Western Highland) plan was as follows: 1. the NVA 33rd Regiment encircles Pleime outpost to force ARVN 2nd Corps to dispatch a relief column from Pleiku; 2. the NVA 32nd Regiment ambushes the relief column (which would be an easy prey without the fire-power support of nearby artillery base-camps); 3. after the relief column is annihilated, the NVA 32nd Regiment reverts back to joint force with the NVA 33rd Regiment in running over camp Pleime; 4. meanwhile, with the weakening of Pleiku's defense lines due to the dispatch of the relief column, the NVA 66th Regiment attacks the 2nd Corps Headquarters, awaiting the NVA 32nd and 33rd Regiments which will join forces after taking over camp Pleime to impart the coup de grace to Pleiku, and thus achieving phase 2 of Dong Xuan Campaign.
The 2nd Corps Command realized that the 2nd Corps would not be able to sustain an all out Viet Cong attack of such magnitude. The 2nd Corps faced a difficult dilemma: 1. rescue camp Pleime and the relief column will be annihilated, then camp Pleime and Pleiku will fall one after the other; 2. abandon camp Pleime to itself, the 2nd Corps will suffer an enormous damaging psychological shock that will demoralize the entire nation, and will delay only momentarily the capitulation of Pleiku. The ARVN Joint General Staff approached the USAF in Saigon. General Westmoreland decided to send in the newly arrived US 1st Cavalry Division to reinforce the ARVN 2nd Corps. General Harry Kinnard immediately chose An Khe, situated midway on highway QL-19 between Pleiku and Qui Nhon, to be his divisional Headquarters' location.
The 2nd Corps Command laid out the following plan to the US 1st Cavalry Division: 1. a relief column will be sent down South from Pleiku to rescue camp Pleime; 2. in the meantime, a combined American-Vietnamese Special Forces contingency will be dropped to bolster the defense of camp Pleime until the arrival of the relief column; 3. US 1st Cavalry Division will reinforce the depleted defense forces of Pleiku by sending in one of its Regimental troops; 4. and will also helilift its artillery batteries into reachable positions to lend support to the relief column whenever needed.
The rescue operation scenario of camp Pleime unfolded as follows:
In the morning of October 19, 1965, the camp sent out a large combat patrol of eighty-five CIDG strikers commanded by two American leaders sweeping the area to the northwest. The camp was protected by five eight-man ambush teams and two regularly posted twenty-man outposts.
At nightfall on October 19, an advancing NVA infantry column slipped past one of the ambush positions and attacked the southern outpost which was overrun after 20 minutes of resistance.
At midnight on October 19, NVA troops attacked the camp itself with sappers and explosive-filled pipe sections. The camp defenders responded with heavy machine guns. Both sides tossed hand grenades at each others.
At 3:43 a.m. on October 20, jets bombarded the camp vicinities with firing napalm bombs.
At 6:00 a.m. on October 20, NVA troops attack the northern outpost. CDIC tribesmen had to resort to hand to hand combat to repulse the invasion.
At 7:30 a.m., a flight of medevac helicopters arrived, escorted by several gunships. They discharged a surgeon and picked up wounded soldiers. Suddenly one of the hovering helicopters was hit and spiraled into the jungle. A Special Forces team immediately scrambled to its rescue, but was stopped by an NVA machine-gun nest. During this attack, one American Special Forces sergeant was mortally wounded. By contrast the larger combat sweep patrol that went out the previous day was able to walk back through the gates without incident.
At midday on October 20, Special Forces Major Charlie A. Beckwith, commander of Project DELTA, reinforced by two companies of the special 91st ARVN Airborne Ranger Battalion, received order to reinforce the camp. This rescue party was ready at Pleiku airfield at 5:00 p.m of the same day.
At 5:20 p.m., a 1.200 man Task Force, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat, consisting of the 3rd ARVN Armored Cavalry Regiment with 6 M41 tanks and M113 armored vehicles, a Squadron of M8 armored carriers transporting food, ammunition and fuel, two towed 105 mm howitzers, an engineer platoon, the 1st Battalion of the 42nd ARVN Regiment, and the 21st and 22nd ARVN Ranger Battalions left Pleiku and proceeded cautiously down highway QL-14 heading south toward camp Pleime. In the meantime, Lieutenant General Stanley Larsen, Commanding General of 1st Field Force, helilifted a battalion of the US 1st Cavalry into Pleiku.
Due to lack of helicopter lift, Major Beckwith units were only helilifted on the morning of October 21, by a series of three flights and dropped off in the thick forest four and a half miles outside Pleime. They wandered in the forest and by mid-afternoon they ran into a three-man NVA recoilless rifle crew and had to turn deeper into the forest. By 5:00 p.m. they were only thirty-five minutes from Pleime. As night fell, they settled down and prepared to enter camp the next morning.
At 1:40 a.m of October 22, a Skyraider A-1E airplane was shot down while flying over camp Pleime. The pilot jumped out but then was only found two days later. Another airplane was also shot, but this time the pilot was rescued immediately.
In the early morning of October 22, after a brief engagement, units of Major Beckwith was able to enter camp Pleime and Major Beckwith took over the command of the camp.
At 1:00 p.m., a three company force slipped out of the camp to clear a nearby hill. It encountered a heavy machine gun nest which killed Special Forces Captain Thomas Pusser and twelve indigenous soldiers, and wounded scores more. The rest of the composite clearing force retreated.
In the same day of October 22, the 91st ARVN Airborne Rangers attempted to destroy two machine-gun positions but they failed in both accounts.
On October 23, at 2:00 p.m., the 22nd Ranger Battalion was helilifted to a landing zone 2 kilometers and a half to the South of the suspected ambush site established by the 32nd NVA Regiment to form a blocking force so that the enemy was caught between them and the relief Task Force.
In the evening of October 23, around 6:00 p.m., the Task Force relief column reached kilometer 4 of Provincial Route 6C, some five miles from Pleime, it entered the ambush site set up by the NVA 32nd Regiment commanded by NVA Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An. At that time, the Task Force relief column was divided into two sectional columns: the first column comprised the M41 light tanks and the M113 armored vehicles; the second column comprised the tracked armored vehicles M-8 protected by two Rangers Companies. The NVA 635th Battalion attacked the first column and the NVA 344th Battalion threatened the second column. Under the cover of F-100 jets and helicopter gunships which delivered concentrations of rockets and cannon fire, along with napalm, on mortar and recoiless rifle positions, the M41 light tanks and the M113 armored vehicles immediately deployed into fighting positions to deliver heavy volume of 76 mm cannon machine-gun fire, inflicting heavy casualties to the enemy. After two hours of ferocious fighting, the enemy broke contact.
The second column with weaker fire powers, was overwhelmed by a concentration of recoiless rifles, 90 mm rockets and mortar delivered by the NVA 344th Battalion. Fortunately, F-100 jets air strikes was able to broke the back of the assault by the NVA 344th Battalion, and drew it back south along Provincial Route 6C.
At 3:00 a.m. of October 24, the NVA 966th reserved Battalion launched an attack against the Task Force relief column with three company-size prongs. Once again, the Task Force relief column responded strongly and inflicted heavy casualties to the enemy which was forced to break contact.
At day break of October 24, a review of the situation showed that the first column had not lost any armored vehicles. However, the second column had sustained heavy damage. Two M-8 armored cars, two five-ton ammo trucks, and two gas tankers were destroyed; one M-8, two five-ton trucks, one bulldozer, two three-quarter trucks, and two 105 mm howitzers were heavily damaged.
On the night of October 23, Lieutenant General Larsen, finished unloading one Cavalry Regiment to protect Pleiku.
Early next morning, on October 24, helicopters placed artillery batteries in positions to support the relief column.
In the afternoon of October 24, after being resupplied by Pleiku, the relief Task Force entered another ambush which turned out to be fiercer than the one sustained the previous day. This time around the Task Force was bogged down. A divisional artillery control team was sent on one of the medevac helicopters to the stranded convoy. The forward observers scrambled into the lead vehicles, and the advance resumed behind a rolling curtain of massed artillery fire.
In the morning of October 25, a commando squad, led by two Special Forces flamethrower sergeants, charged light machine guns surrounding the camp.
In the evening of October 25, the relief Task Force arrived in the camp, ending the siege of camp Pleime.
At this point, the role played by the ARVN 2nd Corps was over, but since General Westmoreland wanted the US 1st Cavalry to keep on searching and destroying the rest of the 32nd and 33rd NVA Regiments which were slipping back to Cambodia, Colonel Hieu continued to cooperate closely with the US 1st Cavalry Division General Staff and to personally assist General Kinnard, the US 1st Cavalry Commanding General, because of his excellent command of English. The bloody Ia Drang Valley battle occurred by the middle of November 1965. Following that battle, the 2nd Corps requested the help of an ARVN Airborne Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ngo Quang Truong, assisted by an American Advisor who would later become famous going by the name of Major Norman Schwarzkopf, to be helilifted into Duc Co areas to harass the retreating NVA troops.
During all the time of camp Pleime's siege, Colonel Hieu stayed up all night long, manning a communication station in the Special Forces camp Duc Co to coordinate the rescue operation. He preferred to use the high performance communication equipment of the American Special Forces to the low performance of the 2nd Corps communication equipment, to communicate effectively in English with all the American Commanders involved in this battle. As a result, the combined Vietnamese-American operation between units in camp Pleime, units of DELTA and ARVN Airborne Ranger, units of USAF and VNAF, units of relief Task Force, units of artillery support, units of US 1st Cavalry Regiment protecting Pleiku, unfolded smoothly as planned.
Few people were aware of Colonel Hieu's contribution in this successful operation, the general public only learned through the media that after this battle Brigadier General Vinh Loc was named the Hero of Pleime and was promoted to the rank of Major General. General Vinh Loc was so proud of this military feat that he named the 2nd Corps Headquarters and the personal C-47 plane of the 2nd Corps Commanding General, Pleime.
During the four-day siege, there were 300 air-strike sorties conducted against the NVA 33rd Regiment which besieged camp Pleime. C-123 Air Force cargo airplanes and Army CV2 Caribou transport airplanes parachuted 333,000 pounds (from which only 9,000 pounds landed outside the wires) of food, first aids supply, ammunition and water.
The enemy suffered heavy losses. The NVA 33rd Regiment which besieged the camp was down to one company of effectives. The NVA 32nd Regiment which set up the ambushes lost 40 percent of its officers and men, including 2 of 3 Battalion Commanders killed and the third one wounded, and 18 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine guns and 11 mortars.
Because fighters of the ARVN 2nd Corps and of the US 1st Cavalry Division succeeded in crushing the Dong Xuan campaign at its phase 1, General Vo Nguyen Giap had to abandon his intention of slicing South Vietnam in the middle in 1965-1966, and so the Viet Cong had a bitter Winter taste of defeat without the benefit of a sweet Spring taste of victory!
Nguyen Van Tin
27 July 1999.
Updated on 09.08.1999
- Books, Articles
* Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, J.D. Coleman, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1988.
* We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, Random House, New York, 1992.
* "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General, Cochran, Alexander S.
* The Siege of Pleime, Project CHECO Report, 24 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.
* Silver Bayonet, Project CHECO Report, 26 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.
- Viet Cong